Engineering Social Concepts: Labels and the Science of Categorization


One of the core insights from Eleanor Rosch’s work on categorization is that human categorization isn’t arbitrary. Instead, two psychological principles constrain possible systems of classification for all human cultures. According to these principles, the task of a category system is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort, and the perceived world provides us with structured rather than arbitrary features. In this paper, I show that Rosch's insights give us important resources for making progress on the 'feasibility question' in conceptual engineering: the question of how we can implement conceptual engineering projects in ways that are practically feasible. Specifically, I show that one overlooked upshot of Rosch's work is that naming practices play an extremely important role in the construction of perceived similarities within and dissimilarities between categories, and, correspondingly, the dissemination of social stereotypes that serve as markers between different categories that are otherwise similar. Thus, naming practices will be a crucial constraint for the feasibility of certain ameliorative projects.

Author's Profile

Eleonore Neufeld
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


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